The fear of Communism after WWII wreaked havoc in the minds of political leaders of various nations in the West including the US. This Communism phobia promoted untold misery and led to abuses in this country, the least of which was blacklisting. It prompted the genocide in Indonesia and a form of genocide in Greece which the people of Greece refer to unofficially as The Greek Civil War (1946-1949). However, this terrible and dark period of Greek History right after WWII remains unacknowledged and is largely unknown. It has been censored/eliminated; it appears no where in standard Greek history books. However, the concentration camps, the beatings, the torture of men and women, the exile, the executions, and the horror continue in the minds of those witnesses who miraculously survived. And for the first time, that dark abyss of human suffering in 20th century Greek history has been revealed in a documentary written and directed by Stavroula Toska. Beneath the Olive Tree screened as a Work in Progress at the 3rd Annual First Time Fest, where it won an award for “Outstanding Achievement in Editing” by Lauren Beckett Jackson.
Narrated by Olympia Dukakis and written and produced by Sophia Antonini and Stavroula Toska, Beneath the Olive Tree is in macro terms a brilliant object lesson of how fear can be used to intimidate and oppress, and how vulnerable, innocent citizens are the casualties of political expediency, corruption and the fight for power dominance. The film opens with its evolution which occurred when Olympia Dukakis shared with Toska a book she had read thirty years prior. The book was composed of women’s journals written undercover and later buried under an olive tree for safekeeping. If they had been discovered, they would have been destroyed for the truth their stories revealed was horrible. These women’s eye-witness accounts reported the atrocities they experienced at the hands of a Greek government that at the time was backed by Britain and the U.S. who feared a Communist takeover of Greece. When Dukakis first became aware of the book, which had been published in the 1980s (Greek Women of Resistance), she was stunned and vowed that eventually, the poignant accounts would be brought to light in a more powerful way. The film realizes Dukakis’ goal thirty years later.
Stavroula Toska, a Greek woman who lived in the U.S. for 15 years where she received her education, was completely unfamiliar with what has been politically described as The Greek Civil War. Many of the mainstream accounts largely ignore the terrible economic fallout (actually worse than right after the Germans left), human suffering and injustices that occurred as political factions ranged against one another to gain the prize, control of Greece. Toska, who grew up in Greece before she came to the U.S., would ask her mother and grandmother about the events occurring after WWII. Both remained secretive. Whether out of fear, post traumatic stress or the desire to bury the horrors forever, they refused to discuss their experiences. Toska felt it was a part of Greek history and her family’s history, and she had a right to know. She sent a journal to her mother and asked her to write down her memories. Her mother never did.
Because Dukakis had “set a fire under her,” Toska was determined to dig up the secrets of The Civil War that she could find nowhere in the history books. She prodigiously researched the war, visited Greece, and interviewed the women who were still alive and who suffered barbaric treatment in the concentration camps in their exile to the islands of Trikeri, Chiros, and Makronisos. She spoke with government officials, scholars, and journalists. Eventually, she was able to piece together a landscape of sorrow, bloodshed, and misery that had remained hidden because it was an embarrassment to Britain, prior Greek governments and to the US whose frenzy to prevent communism in Greece indirectly encouraged such behaviors. These events and her journey to excavate the truth and expurgate the horror of this time is revealed in this fine documentary which stirringly captures and lays bare for us the vital warning that under the right horrific circumstances, nationals can be forced to destroy one another and decimate their own culture with “rational,” “logical” justification.
Toska uses film clips of the women’s testimony, photographs, recent news footage, voice overs, and expert animation to depict and summarize the events that occurred leading up to The Greek Civil War and the tragedy that occurred afterward. With Dukakis narrating, we come to understand how Greek resistance fighters successfully helped to overthrow the German occupation, only to have the tables turned against them by factions of the Greek government who intended to rule the country and receive massive financial assistance from European powers after the war ended. Thus, as is pointed out in Toska’s documentary by eye-witness accounts and her extensive research, the Greek citizens who were German collaborators received no punishment for helping the Nazis but collaborated with the British and the Americans against the resistance fighters. The resistance fighters who were instrumental in helping the allies overthrow the Germans were swept up in the fight for control of Greece. This resistance party which showed its courage ousting the Germans and ending their iron rule of Greece was democratically minded; women were deemed equal with men and the hope was that the middle classes economically would thrive. Ironically, during the Civil War and immediately afterward, the country was shattered and in worse shape than during the German occupation.
Toska’s documentary highlights that because of factioning, many in the resistance were unjustly accused of being Communists; it was politically expedient. Citizens were oppressed through fear, intimidation, coercion, and self-incrimination. Some Greek citizens who had ties to resistance fighters were forced to sign a Declaration of Repentance stating that they had committed crimes and collaborated as Communists. Some signed because their relatives were allegedly tied to the resistance. Others did not sign because they were not Communists and they committed no crimes.
Toska interviews women who refused to sign the Declaration because they were innocent. They share their stories of being exiled to remote islands with concentration camps. Women from 16-86 were sent to the camps. Toska’s survivors discuss their beatings, starvings, torture, and hardships because they continually refused to sign the documents affirming their right to their own beliefs. But according to the government, they had no rights and were enemies of the state. Like the fascists before them during the German occupation, they stood up for the truth and were brutalized for it.
In the clips of the women Toska interviewed (who are now elderly), we see they are powerful survivors; in the camps they formed a choir, a theater, and cared for each other. They share a great humanity, love, and humility at what they suffered. Yet, despite their exile, they are glad that they did not acquiesce to fear or dishonor. They were innocent and they were standing on that truth. But the price they paid for their honor was heavy. The survivors that Toska interviews are the fortunate ones. Numbers of women who were placed in the camps were killed from their torture wounds and others were executed. Though Toska’s film only deals with the women, men suffered the same if not worse fate. And there were thousands. Those who were executed or died in the camps were quietly mourned by their families. The unjust treatment of these innocents has never been acknowledged, nor has the Greek government apologized.
Toska reveals that the only reason why we know of these events is because of a coterie of women who dared to risk their lives by keeping journals and hiding them. One woman who spearheaded this effort wisely told the group to write down their experiences in the concentration camps: what they saw, what the guards did to them, what the camp conditions were like. Before they left at the end of the war, the journals were buried under an olive tree. And there they remained until they were dug up. The mystery of who digs them up and what happens afterward is one of the seminal points of Toska’s work. If not for the women’s journals that were hidden or for the pictures that were taken with a camera that had been smuggled into and out of the camps, this vital record that is an integral examination of the underpinnings of Greek history and politics after WWII would have been lost for all time.
Toska intimates that the genocidal behaviors perpetuated by factions of Greeks on innocent Greek men and women were encouraged by the ruling forces of a government attempting to curry favor with Britain and the U.S. by “punishing their own.” The political chaos and various fighting groups were able to rise and conquer by creating an atmosphere of fear and brutality. Those who gained control believed that by execution, exile, imprisonment, and torture, they were revealing to the West their determination to repudiate Communism. It was a corrupt, self-serving and genocidal idea which lifted up an elite few in power and which has divided the country ever since. In her documentary Toska aptly makes the connections that this buried truth, the cover-up and subsequent corrupt governments are indirectly responsible for an the environment which has been fomenting the economic crises that Greece has continually had to face. She makes an interesting and logical case that the prior Greek governments’ refusal to acknowledge its corruption and puppetry to Europe has its roots in this terrible time in Greek history. She points out that that dark period set the foundations for subsequent political machinations. Indeed, connecting the past to the present, Toska reveals that those incipient political events have in their complexity been a source of division, the economic devolution of the Greek economy and up until recently the fountainhead of political corruption in which Greek citizens have been continually “sold down the river,” to European economic interests.
Toska’s choice of title for this film is brilliant. The olive tree and its branches are symbols of peace. Yet buried under an olive tree were the journals of stories of war and injustice, heartbreak, fear, bloodshed, incarceration, and horror perpetrated by fellow countrymen influenced by foreign powers. The olive tree sheltered their stories and they now have been brought to light in the documentary as a record of a tragic time. Toska’s unearthing of these stories and bringing them to light is done in the hope of creating a new healing peace. In revealing the roots beneath the olive tree of what has been an undercurrent in the politics of Greece since WWII, perhaps finally, there will come an acknowledgement of the injustice that happened. Perhaps, with an acknowledgement will come an apology. Surely, a country must come to terms with its own brutal past in order to begin to heal. In that healing is a greater assurance of future prosperity. If a country cannot face its own corrupt brutality toward its own people, many of whom were innocent, then what is the likelihood that its future will be bright and just?
Toska cogently ties in the past with the present. She suggests that the cover up of the atrocities that occurred is connected to Greek politics kowtowing to the West, represented in the action that Greek governments up until this time have refused to apologize to the victims of the Greek Civil War. The film is a call for repentance, a true repentance belying the faux “Declaration of Repentance” used to intimidate and gain power by execution, exile and torture. In its simplicity and honesty, Beneath the Olive Tree asks that the government acknowledge that many innocents were swept up in a time of fear. They were unjustly abused. Their lives and well being were sacrificed for an ill conceived political result. This has undermined the entire culture and has prevented a solid foundation from which to create sustained prosperity. In Beneath the Olive Tree, Toska has enlightened us to truths which in the right hands can set a nation free.
Olympia Dukakis’ quote from the Huffington Post.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1781591814] [amazon template=iframe image&asin=0226135993]